Skills and Seafaring
There are two key skills for travel on board ships: Profession (Sailor) and Knowledge (Geography). Profession (Sailor) covers all aspects of shiphandling— maneuvering close to the wind, steering through a storm, passing through hazardous waters such as crossing a river bar or threading one’s way through ice floes. Knowledge (Geography) covers the rare art of piloting and navigation—knowing where you are, where you’re going, and how to get there from here.
Two other skills which are almost as important are Survival and Knowledge (Nature). Most skilled mariners are students of the weather and the natural patterns of the ocean. Recognizing a dangerous squall line is the province of the first while determining the proximity of land from the types of fish and seabirds in the area is a useful applications of the second.
Boats and ships offer clumsy characters a variety of ways to fall. Many characters who spend time on or around boats pick up a rank or two in Balance, simply because you never know when your life could depend on it.
Agile swimmers can also hurl themselves entirely out of the water in order to leap over a horizontal barrier such as a your body except for the last foot of your body length gets out of the water, at least for a moment.
Most climbing in seafaring games takes place on or around ships. Characters scramble up into rigging, sahuagin clamber up the sides, and stealthy rogues can creep up anchor chains while a ship is in harbor.
Many craft skills are required to fabricate various parts of a ship—carpentry for the hull and masts, blacksmithing for the iron fittings and nails, sailmaking for the sails, even ropemaking for the thousands of feet of hawsers, stays, and line necessary to rig the ship correctly. However, small craft such as canoes, rafts, and skiffs are all covered under.
Craft (Boat Building)
A boatbuilder can handle any vessel of Huge size or smaller, although a single boatbuilder working on a ketch or launch of Huge size might take six months or more to finish the work. Building a larger ship requires the skills of a shipwright (see Knowledge). The chief difference between a shipwright and a boatbuilder is that the boatbuilder rarely works off of any sort of plans, instead using various rules-of-thumb and his own skilled eye to build a serviceable vessel. Some sample Craft DCs for rafts and boats that can be created with the Craft (boatbuilding) skill appear below.
Clever animals with natural swimming ability offer a unique way for a human to accomplish tricky work in water. Creatures such as porpoises or seals can swim faster and stay submerged far longer than a human can. Many animals don’t need to be taught to swim. Obviously, any creature with a natural swim speed is perfectly at home in the water. Animals without swim speeds might simply be inclined to swim or disinclined to swim. Chimpanzees, for example, detest water and just don’t like to swim. Most dogs, by contrast, take to water with enthusiasm and will likely carry out commands such as fetch or come even if they must swim in order to comply.
The absolutely crucial tasks of navigation and piloting fall under the description of Knowledge (Geography). While Profession (Sailor) covers the maneuvering and handling of a ship, the science of navigation requires a distinctly different set of training—mathematics, geometry, optics, and astronomy, among other fields. Knowledge (Geography) also provides the technical know-how to be able to effectively use maps and nautical charts.
Navigation revolves around two basic tasks: course setting and piloting.
Course Setting: When you set out on a voyage, you need to know how to get where you’re going. The difficulty of setting an accurate course depends on the quality of information you have about where you’re going: The DM makes this check for you, since you don’t know for certain if you have planned an accurate course.
Piloting: Piloting is the art of not getting lost and determining where you are in relation to your intended course, so that you can make corrections as necessary. Piloting actually involves a variety of related techniques: celestial navigation, dead reckoning, and true piloting—using landmarks on shore to establish your position.
Each day of your voyage, you make a piloting check to establish your position and make the routine corrections necessary to hold to your intended course. The DC of this check depends on the methods available to you; on open ocean with cloudy skies, you have no landmarks and no celestial bodies to observe.
There are many languages spoken in the Shackles. But beyond the ability to communicate, in places where travel, trade, and war at sea are commonplace, governments naturally develop various licenses, letters, and documents in order to regulate and administer the activities of those who travel by sea. A skilled forger can be a valuable asset, especially for a captain or crew who wish to pass off a stolen ship as their own vessel.
At sea, spotting another ship without being spotted yourself gives you a great advantage—you can decide whether to seek out or avoid meeting the other vessel. Assuming good visibility (daylight, clear conditions), the basic spotting distance to detect another vessel at sea depends on the height of the observer (swimming, deck, masthead, or flying) and the height of the other vessel or feature.
In addition, water is a better conductor of sound than air; sound waves propagate faster and attenuate less over distance. However, land creatures don’t necessarily hear well underwater, because it’s very difficult to establish direction and discriminate the components of a sound if your ears are intended for hearing through air, not water.
This skill covers a broad variety of tasks and training, ranging from routine jobs such as steering, setting sails, and dropping or raising anchor to smart shiphandling, tactical maneuver, and handling a ship in a storm.
Characters with only 1 or 2 ranks in Profession (sailor) are simple deckhands—competent to work as part of a crew and handle jobs such as reefing sails, manning the helm under the direction of a commander, and generally make themselves useful.
Characters with 3 to 7 ranks in Profession (sailor) are petty officers, officers, or technical experts such as boatswains.
Characters with 8 or more ranks in Profession (sailor) are expert ship handlers. They know how sails should be set for current winds. They can handle tricky tasks of piloting such as crossing a river bar. And they are skilled at tactical maneuvers in battle such as executing or avoiding a ramming attack, bringing a ship alongside for boarding, and using the weather to remain at range, rake an enemy’s bow or stern, or fall away from action.
This skill encompasses the science of naval architecture, ship design, and construction techniques for large vessels. To some extent it overlaps the naval engineering specialization of Knowledge (Engineering), but Profession involves the mechanics and process of designing a ship and getting it built while Knowledge reflects the academic study of large water craft and design. This Profession skill also overlaps to some extent with Craft (Boat Building), but boat-building typically involves a single person building a small craft with their own hands while a shipwright oversees the design and building of large water craft.
Large vessels exceed any normal application of the Craft skill, since they represent the collaboration of dozens or even hundreds of specialists, none of whom possess all the skills necessary to build a ship alone (unlike the boatbuilder, who must know at least a little bit about many related skills such as ropemaking, sailmaking, carpentry, and even ironwork). Instead of having each specialist make separate Craft checks to fabricate individual components of a ship, the chief shipwright simply makes Knowledge (architecture and engineering) skill checks to successfully design and oversee the building of a large vessel.
The DC of your shipbuilding check varies with the ship you’re trying to build and the craftsmen and materials you have on hand. The materials required to build a ship are equal to half the ship’s indicated price; in addition, you must pay the shipyard workers an amount equal to one-quarter of the ship’s indicated price.
The open ocean is one of the most hostile environments in the world. Food and drinking water are extremely hard to come by; drinking seawater simply increases the rate at which dehydration kills anyone unfortunate enough to be caught out at sea without fresh water to drink, and mid-ocean waters can be surprisingly barren of fish to catch and eat.
Survival is also used to predict the weather, a necessary skill for sailors who wish to avoid storms or being becalmed.
Naturally, the ability to swim and to swim well is a very useful skill for adventures in which you might go into the water at any moment.